109 Tyree Guyton

Born Detroit, MI, 1955 / DFA (ad honorem), College for Creative Studies / Lives in Detroit

It’s all about YOU.

In his book Free Schools, Free Minds, Ron Miller describes two ways to imagine the relationship between radical education and social change: the first (exemplified by A.S. Neill) says that if you liberate the mind of the individual they will go on to change society, and the second (exemplified by Paulo Freire) says that you change individuals by working collectively on projects to change society. But in Tyree Guyton’s Heidelberg Project, it’s all about YOU – first discover who you really are, and then go on to change the world.

But the world, as has been said, is a moving train. We don’t choose where we get on, or the direction it is traveling. Guyton boarded the train at Heidelberg Street, on Detroit’s east side, at a time when the neighborhood was on its way toward a period of sustained and devastating decline. TIME is everywhere in the Heidelberg project. It’s there in the hundreds of found and painted clock faces. It’s there in the empty lots and derelict buildings. It’s there spelled out, over and again, in plain text. Time is the fourth axis running through Heidelberg Street. Heidelberg was constructed as much by history as it was by Guyton.

Much of the history is painful. Guyton has often described how the shoes he strings from trees are inspired by things his grandfather, and Heidelberg project co-founder, Sam Mackey, remembered of the horror of lynchings from his childhood in the South. Think about that. There is the pain of abandonment too. On the corner of Heidelberg and Mount Elliott, a bassinet overflowing with stuffed animals sits alongside a small suitcase. The child’s suitcase by the side of the road evokes the forced displacements that have accompanied some of the most traumatic global events of the 20th century. In Detroit it serves as a poignant reminder that the majority of the people who remember first-hand the anguish of Detroit’s great demographic shifts experienced them as children. Guyton is from that generation. The suffering of children is rarely far from the surface at the Heidelberg project. Think about that too.

At the literal and symbolic center of the Heidelberg project is an equation: 2+2=8. In the novel 1984, George Orwell famously used the arithmetic 2+2=5 to illustrate “doublethink,” a mechanism that required subjects to simultaneously hold in their mind two contradictory views of the world – one that derived from their own experience, and the other that was espoused by Big Brother on behalf of the totalitarian state. Guyton also wants you to hold two views of the world, but in the Heidelberg arithmetic 2+2=8 those two worlds are the one you see in front of you, with all of its historically constructed suffering, and the world as you want it to be. Guyton wants you to live simultaneously in a world of reality and infinite possibility.

“2+2=8” is also the title of Guyton’s Fall 2018 retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit. In preparation for it, Guyton is conceptually deconstructing the three-decade-plus history of the Heidelberg project, taking it down to the core elements that make up “Heidelbergology,” his term for the “science” behind his life project. He describes the process as being akin to “riding an elevator down through 30 levels,” a liberating, but scary, experience. Along the way he’s encountering the polka dots, the clocks, the shoes, the taxis, the houses, the hoods, the faces, and all the other physical and painted objects that have become the building blocks of his extraordinary visual world.

Guyton thinks of his art as a form of medicine. As he says, “You can’t heal the land until you heal the minds of the people.” He speaks from experience – the development of the Heidelberg Project has been at least as much about the development of Tyree Guyton. He wouldn’t ask you to take any medicine he hasn’t tested on himself. Now he thinks he knows the medicine so well, you don’t have to come to Heidelberg to receive it. He can bring it to you, now. 2+2=8. The Time is Now.

Steve Panton, August 2018

Copyright Essay’d 2018